Identifying Your Conflict Leadership Style

Leaders spend anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their day managing conflict. Typically, they have a dominant conflict leadership style that they rely on to handle disputes between teachers, administrators, parents, and central office staff. However, this style may not be effective and can even hinder school reform efforts, leading to increased stress levels, frustration, and stagnation.

In this article, we will delve deeper into three different leadership approaches to conflict resolution and highlight how school leaders can effectively address and resolve conflicts.

Conflict Leadership Styles in Education

According to workplace expert Amy Gallo, our response to conflict is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Our brains perceive conflict as a threat and often struggle to differentiate between minor and major threats. In these moments, we tend to either shut down or become aggressive. These ineffective responses are also observed in schools.

We can classify conflict leadership styles into three categories: avoidance, aggression, and addressing the problem. Which of these styles best describes your approach to conflict?

Avoidance: Successful administrators aim to maintain a calm and harmonious school environment where all stakeholders are satisfied. Conflict is seen as disruptive and uncomfortable, so the leader’s primary role is to avoid conflict as much as possible.

Aggression: Effective school leaders take a transactional approach, building alliances with supporters and keeping opponents at bay. When faced with dissent, leaders vigorously defend their positions and utilize their administrative authority to reward supporters and exert pressure on adversaries.

Addressing: Skilled leaders recognize that conflict is inevitable and sometimes even constructive. They view conflicts as opportunities to address substantive issues and work collaboratively with the school community to identify feasible solutions.

Avoidant Leaders

Avoidant leaders actively avoid conflicts. They see disputes over policies and practices as indicative of organizational dysfunction and aim to prevent any disagreements from arising. Some avoidance strategies are overt, while others are more subtle. Here are a few examples:

One common form of avoidance is referred to as “orbiting,” which involves referring disputes to perpetual meetings without making any real progress. This approach often leads to frustration and stagnation, as decisions are constantly postponed. An example of this is when a teacher joins a curriculum committee with the expectation of choosing a new math curriculum, only to find that endless meetings prevent any meaningful decisions from being made.

Another avoidance tactic is “picking low-hanging fruit,” where leaders focus only on easy and non-controversial matters while neglecting more significant concerns. For instance, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee may spend years creating bulletin board displays but fail to address the deeper issues faced by the district.

Some leaders create an outward appearance of collegiality to avoid dealing with challenging school problems. They prioritize social harmony over confronting difficult issues. For example, in team meetings, teachers may spend more time discussing social events and gossip rather than analyzing student data.

While these avoidance strategies may create a positive atmosphere, they do not address the underlying issues and can hinder meaningful progress.

Aggressive Leaders

Aggressive leaders resort to hostility and intimidation when faced with conflicts. This can manifest in raised voices, verbal threats, and bellicose gestures. It is alarming how frequently faculty meetings turn into shouting matches or instances where principals chastise teachers publicly.

Another aggressive response to conflict is manipulation. School leaders have various tools at their disposal to reward desired behavior and punish dissent. This includes manipulating observation reports, annual reviews, stipends, and schedules to influence outcomes. Additionally, some leaders stack committees with individuals who share their viewpoints, effectively silencing alternative voices.

Aggression may suppress immediate discord, but it does not address the underlying issues. Instead, it tends to escalate tensions, harden positions, and hinder constructive conversations.

Addressing the Conflict

The constructive conflict management style involves actively addressing conflicts. While conflicts are often seen as signs of dysfunction, skillful leaders understand that conflicts, when managed effectively, can contribute to school improvement. Addressing conflicts requires acknowledging and understanding people’s reservations and emotions, rather than ignoring or dismissing dissent.

Addressing conflicts leads to the development of better solutions. Leaders can employ various strategies, such as using positive language, implementing protocols like “Trading Places,” and utilizing the design thinking process to generate data-based solutions specific to the organization’s needs.

The first step in addressing conflicts is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the underlying issues and engage in collaborative problem-solving. This involves prioritizing the concerns that drive the conflict and working towards consensus and continuous evaluation of practices and policies.

Addressing conflicts requires courage on the part of school leaders. Avoiding controversy or suppressing opposition may feel more comfortable initially, but it hinders meaningful progress. Effectively managing conflict also requires patience, as resolving conflicts and reaching agreements takes time.

Given the increasing prevalence of divisive conflicts in education, the conflict leadership style adopted by leaders can significantly impact their ability to alleviate tension, reduce resistance, and promote positive change in schools.